Danny Meyer at The Commonwealth Club

| October 21, 2006 | 6 Comments
  • 6 Comments

There are few restaurant owners I have worked for who have inspired me more than Danny Meyer. About ten years ago I worked at Gramercy Tavern, then his second restaurant. Mere weeks after I was hired, Danny called an all staff meeting, closing both establishments for lunch, and seating us in the loft-like dining rooms of Gramercy Tavern. It would be my first introduction to the owner’s earnest philosophy, unnamed as yet, and now called “Enlightened Hospitality.”

After a friendly introduction Danny asked a question, “Does anyone know what ‘hospitality’ means?” It seemed simple enough, but after a few moments of silence, I looked around, stunned that no one was speaking up. Much to the amazement of my team’s faces, I raised my hand and answered with a definition.

The word hospitality is born from the word hospitable, which means, ” Receiving and entertaining strangers or guests generously and kindly.” (Webster’s New International Dictionary/Second Edition 1955.)

In Danny Meyer‘s new book, Setting The Table, he gives a more thorough explanation:

“Hospitality is the foundation of my business philosophy. Virtually nothing else is as important as how one is made to feel in any business transaction. Hospitality exists when you believe the other person is on your side. The converse is just as true. Hospitality is present when something happens for you. It is absent when something happens to you. Those two simple prepositions-for and to-express it all.”

As simple as this sounds, few restaurants, or any other business owners, have a grasp on this basic philosophy. In most restaurants, hospitality is something you experience as a diner. Or should. But working for Danny Meyer, and/or eating at any of his current eleven establishments, means that you will feel and understand hospitality down to it’s very core.

By Danny Meyer’s own admission, Setting The Table is not a how-to book. Not one to proselytize, the author says there are few ideas in the text which will be new to the reader, especially if you’re a business owner or someone who reads books on business. Begging to differ, Danny brought audible gasps when he easily named the first, most important tenet of five in Enlightened Hospitality, “the customers don’t come first, they come second. Our employees come first.”

It might seems as though this easy sentence could turn capitalism in its head, but I know from the experience of working within this system that a happy employee is more likely to turn around and treat their co-workers and customers well than if they feel disrespected, taken for granted, un-acknowledged or just plain burnt out by management and/or the customers themselves.

Danny Meyer’s talk at The Commonwealth Club was as down-to-earth and plain spoken as his book is written. After years of hearing from the publishing world, many of whom frequented Union Square Cafe, his first restaurant, that he should write a book, he finally figured out what he would write about. And why it was important to set to paper that which he’d learned along the way to building what is one of the most successful restaurant empires in perhaps the most competitive American city. After seeing that Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe ranked #1 or #2 in Zagat’s “favorite restaurant” category every year since they had been open, “I figured out what our key to success is in this city, where there are 18,000 restaurants and most of them fail after the first two years. The key that unlocked the door; the category missing from the Zagat, is hospitality.”

In his introduction to Setting The Table, he says it like this,

“In order to succeed you need to apply-simultaneously-exceptional skills in selecting real estate, negotiating, hiring, training, motivating, purchasing, budgeting, designing, manufacturing, cooking, tasting, pricing, selling, servicing, marketing and hosting. And the purpose of all this is a product that provides pleasure and that people trust is safe to ingest into their bodies. Also…you are actually present while the goods are being consumed and experienced, so that you can gauge your customers’ reactions in real time. That’s pretty complex stuff.”

But the humility of this man’s accomplishments should not sway you from the richness of his knowledge. Danny Meyer has learned from his mistakes, the mistakes of his grandfather and father– the heroes and mentors of his inherited entrepreneurial spirit, and he speaks candidly about the mistakes of thinking two dimensionally about business and the restaurant business. In fact Danny Meyer thinks mistakes should be embraced and welcomed.

Quoting people who he admired along the way, Danny said these two sentences, “The road to success is paved with mistakes. Until you learn that mistakes can be your best friend, you will never succeed in business.” And following with his own words, he said emphatically, “Write a great ‘Last Chapter,’ don’t take out an eraser when someone tells the story of your bad service.”

Use that feedback, he explained, to turn the mistake around, to make good on your promise to deliver the goods. Because, “Unless your business did what it said it was going to do, it failed.”

One of the “last chapters” Danny implemented when I worked at Gramercy Tavern were the umbrellas. Because weather often changes drastically in New York during the course of a long pleasurable meal, Danny printed large, old-fashioned umbrellas printed elegantly with the logo of the restaurant and had them on hand to give to customers who might have arrived in dry weather but were leaving during a downpour. Many people asked him if it was worth it to produce and gift such an extravagant amenity. Yes, he explained, these were the little things a customer would remember when deciding where to eat on another night.

Because, “There’s more good cooking going on in our country today than any other time in our history, the defining factor, in our hospitality economy, is the emotional experience; how you make them feel. Because long after they forget what they ate, they are going to remember how they were treated.”

Reminding us that service is not the same as hospitality; he broke it down like this:

If you have two light bulbs and you rate how well each of them are doing their job, one of the ways you would do this is to see which one attracts moths. “Because that’s what lights do, right? Well you’ll see that a fluorescent bulb won’t attract moths because the other one is warmer.” Warmth is the hospitality factor.

Making his point even more clear he said succinctly, “Service is a monologue, hospitality is a dialogue. Performing a function-that is a monologue; it’s a ‘one-size-fits-all.’

Loyal customers will go back for more-and I that’s what keeps us all in business. It happens when customers feel they’re treated warmly.”

Danny Meyer spoke definitively about liabilities. Starting, haltingly, as a cook, he soon realized that what he had to offer was best served from the front end in. He knew he needed to hire “people who could cook circles around me.” And there began his search, forever on, for employees and partners with whom he could not only work with, but who would fill in the skills he knew he lacked.

In the first chapter to Setting The Table, the author speaks candidly about his earliest experiences witnessing failing small businesses.

“Although Dad may have been an inventive entrepreneur, he did not have the necessary emotional skills or discipline, and he failed to surround himself with enough competent, loyal, trustworthy colleagues whose skills and strengths would have compensated for his own weaknesses.”

Danny says that when his businesses hire employees they are looking for “hospitalitarians.” These are people whose skill sets are broken down into 49 parts technical skills and 51 parts emotional skills.

“A hospitalitarian is a highly curious optimist-they like to learn, and they have a great work ethic. It’s just in their DNA to do their job well. They’re empathetic-it matters to them how they make other people feel and they possess the judgement to do the right thing.

I cannot train any of those skills. And either can you.”

“Like being the captain of a baseball team, the best thing I get from the power of my job is to pick the people on my team. Hospitality is about who you hire and what you are hiring for.”

If I didn’t work for this man I would have trouble believing that a person who talks this Pollyanna talk could actually walk it. I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants and few of them deliver true on the line they speak to the public, the PR firms or the major news media. It might appear that this model, this “enlightened hospitality” could be another lark, another new-age doublespeak which means nothing more than the carbon dioxide it takes to emit such breathy sentences of.

But Danny Meyer is approachable, corny, friendly and generous of spirit. The line under his name on the top of his book reads, “America’s Most Innovative Restaurateur”, and the text below that says, “The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.”

His restaurants operate like none other I have ever seen, eaten at, or worked in. Ultimate power was given to each and every one of us to go out of our way for the customer, without needing to seek out a “manager’s approval” (thus creating a delay in expediting the solving of a problem(s), and many people in various roles both front and back of house told their tales of how they were able to make a difference in a diner’s experience. In fact, front and back of house were not considered separate entities, and any “warring” which would usually be normal and even encouraged at other restaurants, was virtually non-existent.

This book is a great read, an inspirational story, and an informative introduction to what may well be the newest, most radical philosophy the business world has ever considered. And Danny’s affable voice and manner shine through the words, lighting the ideas from the back, and making the foundations transparent and accessible.

He sums it up best in the last paragraph to Setting The Table’s introduction:

“You may think, as I once did, that I’m primarily in the business of serving good food. Actually, though, food is secondary to something that matters even more. In the end, what’s most meaningful is creating positive, uplifting outcomes for human experiences and human relationships. Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.”

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Category: Bay Area Bites Food + Drink

About the Author ()

Shuna fish Lydon was whisked and baked in San Francisco but served and eaten in New York City. She's had a 16 year tumultuous love affair with professional cooking and has BFA in photography from CCAC. Working with and for some of the best chefs in NYC and California, Shuna's resume reads like the who's who of cooking today. She identifies as a fruit-inspired pastry chef and calls the many local farmers' markets her muse. Currently "at large," Shuna spends her time teaching baking and knife skills classes, consulting at local restaurants and writing for a number of outlets about deliciousness.
  • Julie

    Shuna,
    Good piece. I think that after working at Gramercy, it must have been hard to go anywhere else! I had wanted to eat at Union Square Cafe for years (I think I heard Sarah Moulton talking about it on one of her old shows), and I finally did when I was in NYC last year. It was just as great as I’d hoped.

  • Anonymous

    hey hey , well written piece and very good overview of the book and what happened at the commonwealth club.
    Great job!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for a great review. I’ve read it aloud several times to others, because it so encapsulates the true purpose of every business interchange, no matter what the business.

    By sharing your firsthand experience with what’s behind this man’s enduring success, you made this a very affecting piece about an inspiring book — one I plan to give to friends and colleagues throughout the coming months. I’ll insert a copy of this as well.

    Keep up the great work!

    - pe / Anon.

  • mishad

    Well said and thank you to the both of you. Having worked in restaurants for the past 20 years trying to inspire staff & owners with some of the same philosophies, maybe some will start to listen with Mr. Meyers visionary & supportive account.

  • Brett

    Thanks, Shuna, for pointing Danny Meyer’s book out. Can’t wait to buy it! As you and I both know too well, DM is right. Most restaurateurs really do come up short when it comes to serving the needs of their guests and the needs of the folks that work for and with them. Sounds like he has articulated some ideas and concepts in his book similar to what I’ve been tossing around in the planning stage of my new restaurant, so his book will be a great help for me.

  • cucina testa rossa

    great review made even more poignant with your view from the trenches.